Who the Hell is David Brooks?
I asked myself this after reading a parody “I Am David Brooks’ Friend With Only A High School Degree. I Have Never Seen A Sandwich and All I Know Is Fear” in The Yale Record. Brooks is a writer with an op-eEd column in The New York Times; he’s also written books, including the 2015 bestseller The Road To Character. On July 11, 2017 The Times ran Brooks’ piece: “How We Are Ruining America,” which includes this passage:
Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.
The problem isn’t with America, or with the sandwich shop, the problem is with an idiotic elitist phony named David Brooks.
Brooks, based on this piece, would appear to be an elitist snob lacking in basic courtesy.
First, Brooks should have asked his friend where she would like to lunch, and given her choices.
Secondly, Brooks is conflating social class, economic status and education. Throughout the piece Brooks treats social class and education and economic status as identical social markers; they are not, though they are interlocking vectors in a Venn diagram.
Note that Brooks emphasizes that the “friend” has “only a high school degree.” That’s his primary identifier for her; he has already ranked her and filed her with that as an identifier. Having only a high school degree isn’t really as meaningful as Brooks wants to make it; I know a number of highly educated people who in fact did not make it through high school, or formal education beyond high school.
He assumes (and may be right) that what panicked his friend is that she was confronted with food that she did not recognize. She may have simply not liked Italian cuisine; she may have panicked at the thought of ordering something she didn’t know and couldn’t pronounce (which is something that happens even to Ph.Ds who leave familiar surroundings). That is not something that is tied to the presence or lack of a degree; it’s tied to experience.
Having already made a faux pas in not asking her where she would like to dine, Brooks then firmly steps in it by taking her someplace else. The correct response would be to courteously help her out; “I can’t say it, but I really like the soppressata, which is a slightly dry Italian salami.” Or “My favorite is the pomodoro; it’s fresh tomatoes, creamy mozzarella, and fresh basil leaves on bread made here at the store.” Or even called upon the store staff to help by asking them about the menu. He could have helped her. That would have been treating her as a social equal, an adult, and providing something that she could use later, if she wanted.
Instead he made his friend feel worse, by taking her somewhere else, emphasizing her discomfort instead of making her feel comfortable. Smooth move Mr. Brooks. Really. And I’m not even going to comment on the ethnocentric pas de deux inherent in “I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.” Apparently Mexican ranks below Italian;[ref]Though I suspect what Brooks thinks of as Mexican is at best Tex-Mex[/ref] who knew?
But wait; there’s moar:
I’ve come to think the structural barriers he emphasizes are less important than the informal social barriers that segregate the lower 80 percent.”
Seriously dude? “informal social barriers” and “lower 80 percent”? Really? You’re a prime example of gentrification; taking what was a peasant medieval standard way of preserving less than choice cuts of meat (soppressata) and making it some kind of yuppie statement about social class and education.
It’s not even about her, or social class; it’s really about David Brooks. I’d be perfectly willing to treat him to a turkey butchering and plucking party, or a queer house party, or even a Linux install party, and I m pretty sure he’d feel just as much as if either event was
laced with cultural signifiers that are completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class. They play on the normal human fear of humiliation and exclusion. Their chief message is, “You are not welcome here.”
Given his tendency, according to others, to play fast and loose with sources, I hope Mr. Brooks made this story and his friend up. Because in a completely boorish act of self-aggrandisation for him and humiliation for her, he writes about his friend in The New York Times.
It’s not about social class. It’s not about economic class. It’s not about education. It’s about you, David Brooks. It’s about your entitled blindness and self-absorption as having arrived as a member of the “social elite.” You are in fact more specifically less an example of the social elite and more one of the entitled and discourteous. Nor am I the only one to think this. [ref]I am particularly amused by this Slate piece. [/ref]
Here’s a clue-stick. It isn’t education (formal education provides access to lots of resources and mentors, but they’re available in other ways for free) that’s the limiting factor in terms of social mobility.
It’s money. It’s time, because if you’re a low-wage worker you don’t have time, because you’re always trying to makeup for overtime (or the second and third part-time jobs) you’ve clocked to make more money. It’s an endless cycle
The solution? Raise minimum wage. Provide universal health care. Pay people what they’re worth; most “unskilled” labor isn’t unskilled, and it’s definitely labor.